25 January 2005

 

email:oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

 

Coining it

For the second time in less than six months I have received a communication through the post from a company trying to discover my whereabouts with regard to my entitlement under a pension plan of which I was not aware (see Windfall).
At first, I thought this latest letter; ostensibly sent to me via the Dept of Work and Pensions, might be a hoax but, when I read that the authors, Winterthur Life UK Ltd, are part of the Credit Suisse Group, I began to sit up and take notice.
The reason for all this activity is that I was born on 1 February 1940 - I'll leave you to work the significance of that out for yourselves.
On contacting Winterthur, they inform me that this pension policy was taken out in 1967 by my then employers Veal and Walters of Saundersfoot.
The thought of all that lovely lolly compounding away for nearly 40 years sounds very attractive.
Winterthur have promised to write to me within the next few days informing me of the size of this unexpected bonus but, as I only worked for Veal and Walters for about 18 months, I am not expecting it will change my way of life.
Funnily enough, the last time I was in Saundersfoot, I bumped into Billy Veal; still toiling away in the building industry and as full of bounce and energy as he was when I first met him 38 years ago.
Next time I see him, I must buy him a pint.


Boom-boom

After years of depression, Pembrokeshire is set for a building boom as work starts on the liquified gas plants at Waterston and the former Esso sites, and plans are unveiled for a couple of power stations in the county.
While I wholeheartedly welcome these developments, it should be remembered that, as the Nobel-prizewinning economist Milton Friedman has observed: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."
As those of us old enough to experience past building booms can testify, every silver lining has a cloud.
Indeed, the reason I moved from Stoke to Pembrokeshire was that firms like Veal and Walters, who couldn't recruit enough staff locally to cope with their workload, were advertising in Construction News - known throughout the building trade as "The Jackers' Journal" - offering extremely generous pay and conditions, including a pension, it seems.
The result was a nasty bout of wage inflation in the county that was a contributory factor in sending several local contractors to the wall.
Having run a building company during the the boom; caused by the building of Amoco, I can tell you it is no fun.
It eventually reached the stage where we would put in outrageous prices for County Council contracts in the hope that we wouldn't get them.
Then the phone would ring and the quantity surveyor would tell you that yours was the lowest tender.
You might think this was a licence to print money, but I am sorry to say you would be wrong.
Firstly, lack of labour would mean that jobs would run months and months over time.
And secondly, though most of the bricklayers, plasterers and carpenters I came across had never read an economics textbook they, nevertheless, had a professorial understanding of the relationship between supply, demand and price.
So, if you're thinking of building an extension, don't delay.
Of course, the county council will not be immune to the effects of this localised inflation.
It will find it increasingly difficult to deliver its capital programme within budget, as well as finding its maintainance section having to compete with site contractors for labour.
Critics say, with justification, that this construction boom will only be short term.
But, as that other great economist John Maynard Keynes would have told them: "In the long term- we're all dead."

 

Every picture tells a story

 

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that is why television is such a powerful medium.
Last Thursday's "Wales this Week", on the Ombudsman's report into the Mrs Lawrence fiasco, not only provided us with a repeat of those wonderful shots of Maurice Hughes slamming the door in the reporter's face when they first investigated the case this time last year but also an interesting insight into the way things work in County Hall under the new leadership.
The magic moment arrived during what appeared to be a one-on-one interview when the reporter asked Cllr John Davies to explain why people collecting copies of the Ombudsman's report from the reception desk in County Hall were asked to provide their names and addresses.
I have not yet graduated to a video but a friend who has all this modern technology tells me that the Leader said: "We have a responsibility to be aware of the interests for which they're being taken and used."
Really?
At that point there were noises off, and the camera switched to Len Mullins - former news editor of the Western Telegraph, now second in command in the council's spin surgery - who said, "I'm not aware of anything pertaining to that."
Because the reporter and Mr Mullins were talking over each other it is not possible to decipher what was said next but, when he resumed the interview, the Leader was back on-message telling the audience that the report was a public document and that he could "absolutely guarantee" that it was freely available to anyone who asked for it.
As one of those whose name and address was entered into the reporter's notepad on the reception desk, I will be asking who authorised this piece of Stalinist surveillance.
Whoever it was that described the Independent Political (sic) Group as the political wing of the Chief Officer's Management Board (COMB) wasn't far off the mark.
Nor was one of the more astute members of the Labour Group who, during a post-election discussion on the prospects for improvement now that Maurice Hughes had been replaced by John Davies, observed, laconically: "Same horse - different jockey."

Aga saga

After "Wales this Week" had finished, it became apparent that Old Grumpette had not only been watching the programme but had also taken the opportunity to have a skeet, as they say in her native Isle of Man, around other people's houses.
"Did you notice Jackie Lawrence has a red Aga?" she said as soon as the credits began to roll.
As if I would!
Now, if you were paying attention, you would have noticed that we have a blue Aga.
But, before you read too much political symbolism into this, I should point out that our Aga is an insipid powder blue, quite unlike the colour used by a particular political party.
Furthermore, the Aga was already in place when we bought the house.
On the occasion that we actually bought an Aga from scratch, as it were, we chose a red one.
Just thought I'd clear that one up before anyone attempts to attack my credentials as a truly independent member of the county council.

Happy families?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Ombudsman's report into the county council's serial mishandling of the case of Mrs Lawrence is that is was not until November 2003 - 14 months after her initial complaint - that it was made known to her that Maria Hemingway, whose conduct as Chairman of the Child Protection Conferences (CPC) was the substance of Mrs Lawrence's most serious complaint, was the wife of Director of Social Services, Jon Skone.

There were three of these CPCs all of which were, according to the Ombudsman, "seriously procedurally flawed" in that Mrs Lawrence was not given time to read documents beforehand and where the Chairman failed to distinguish between "fact, observation, allegation and opinion" as required by the guidelines "Working together" that had been in force since 1999.
The chronology of these events is as follows:
(1) Initial CPC, chaired by Ms Hemingway, 17 April 2002.

(2) First review CPC, chaired by Ms Hemingway, 8 July 2002.

(3) Second reveiw CPC, chaired by Ms Hemingway, 29 October 2002.

On 2 September 2002 - midway between the first and second reveiw CPC - Mrs Lawrence wrote to the council to complain about the way these CPCs had been conducted by the chairman.

At paragraph 239, the Ombudsman says: "I regard as maladministration the Council's failure to replace Officer H [Maria Hemingway] as chairman of the second CPC held in October 2002. Mrs Price [Mrs Lawrence] had made a complaint about her as chairman of the previous, July, conference. Given the nature of the points of complaint she had identified, there was little prospect of her engaging positively in any further conference chaired by Officer H."

So why was Ms Hemingway allowed to continue?

As to who knew what and when, it is all rather murky, vague and confusing..

Mr Skone told the Ombudsman's investigator that "...he had not been aware of Mrs Lawrence's case in any great detail and was unable to respond to questions about events which led to her complaints. With reference to Mrs Lawrence's letters to him...he said his secretary would have acknowledged and re-routed letters addressed to him and he had no recollection of Mrs Lawrence's letters."

Mr Skone also told the investigator that "...he had no idea when he became aware that Mrs Lawrence had made a complaint against his wife [Maria Hemingway] although he had been aware that Officer H [Ms Hemingway] had chaired the CPC and had had some dealings with Mrs Lawrence (para 177)."

It seems that the Skone/Hemingways didn't believe in taking their work home because Ms Hemingway told the investigator that, during the more than two years this affair had rumbled on, "... she had not discussed the case with her husband (para 196)."

You might think it rather surprising that, if you write to Mr Skone, the decision as to whether or not he will see the letter is entirely in the hands of his secretary.

Officer I [David Halse, Head of Childcare commissioning] certainly thought so.
He told the Ombudsman that "...letters on operational childcare matters addressed to the Director of Social Services were usually routed to him [Officer I], although he thought Officer J [Jon Skone] read most of the letters addressed to him. He did not believe that Mrs Lawrence's letters had been treated any differently from anyone else's."

Then there is the letter Mrs Lawrence sent to the Social Services Department on 10 September 2002 in which she referred, among other things, to her complaint against Maria Hemingway.
"The intended recipient is not clear from the copy on the council's files," the Ombudsman writes, "but the copy bears a manuscript note 'Officer K/Officer I. should this issue/complaint be considered by ACPA [Area Child Protection Conference] rather than through the standard complaints process? [signed] Officer J [Jon Skone].

And according to the Ombudsman: "Officer I [David Halse] informed Officer J [Jon Skone] on 18 September 2002 that he was about to start Mrs Lawrence's Complaint 2 [the one involving Ms Hemingway]" (para 90).

So, it seems clear that Mr Skone was aware of the complaint against his wife some time before the CPC on 29 October 2002 and must therefore take some responsibility for the maladministration involved in the failure to replace her as chairman (para 239).

In the event, it seems that Mr Halse didn't begin the investigation of Complaint 2, as indicated by his note to Mr Skone dated 18 September (see above) because a decision seems to have been taken to go straight to Stage 2 and on 4 December 2002 an "independent" child protection expert, Mr John Fitgerald, was commissioned to investigate Mrs Lawrence's complaints about "the conduct and chairing of the first CPC".

Mr Halse told the Ombudsman that part of the reason for this decision was that "... [as] he was the line manager of Officer H [Maria Hemingway] against whom the complaint had been made, and she was the partner of the Director [Jon Skone], his line manager, he felt it important that the complaint against Officer H be dealt with independently and objectively."

As the Ombudsman observes at para 238, the reasons for the decision to bring in Mr Fitzgerald "were not explained to Mrs Lawrence."

Indeed, as we shall see, it was another 10 months before Mrs Lawrence was eventually told of the relationship between Jon Skone and Maria Hemingway.

On 12 February 2003 Mr Fitzgerald made an interim report ttelling Mr Halse that it was "highly debatable" that the case should have reached a CPC in the first place and that, in his view, having reached that stage, the children should not have been placed on the register.

However, as Mr Fitzgerald observed: "having placed the children on the register, removal would have meant a considerable loss of face on the part of a number of professionals at subsequent conferences."
That sentence is well worth reading again!

Mr Fitzgerald's final report went to the council on 2 June 2003.
He said the original decision to place the names of the children on the at risk register was, given the available evidence, "totally inappropriate".
He said "there were some questionable practices in play" and that and that some of those present had misused the conference "to get their own way".

He concluded: "...if they have not already done so, then the local authority should take active steps to remove their names from the register unless there is clear evidence to the contrary (Mr Fitzgerald's emphasis).

A CPC was convened two days later, chaired by an out-of-county chairman."

Even then, it seems, there were some who were determined, against all the evidence, to get their own way because the Ombudsman reports at para 127 that the children's names were removed from the register by "a majority decision".

Officer I [David Halse] was detailed off to make a formal response to Mrs Lawrence with regard to Mr Fitzgerald's report.

Mr Halse, you will recall, had decided to keep his distance from the investigation because of his relationship with Jon Skone and Maria Hemingway and had brought in Mr Fitzgerald to ensure that the complaint was dealt with "independently and objectively"

However, that didn't prevent him from disputing Mr Fitzgerald's findings.

The Ombudsman records that, after admitting to some of the council's shortcomings, Mr Halse told Mrs Lawrence that: "He did not, however, concur in the conclusions of the IO [Mr Fitzgerald] as to the failure of the chairman, Officer H's [Maria Hemingway's] part in failing properly to discharge her responsibility in relation to preparation of the parents prior to the initial CPC and the subsequent two conferences."

Incidentally, the Obudsman concludes, at para 240, that the chairman's failure to ensure that the parents were provided with reports prior to the day of the conference was "...incompetent and unfair and constitutes maladministration."

Mrs Lawrence complained to the Ombudsman on 8 March 2003.

At paragraph 244, the Ombudman records that: "My predecessor had invited the Council to consider making a remedy to Mrs Lawrence for the shortcomingsidentified in respect of her complaints 1 and 2. It is disappointing that the Council failed to agree a suitable remedy with Mrs Lawrence.In particular, I note that the council appeared to think only in terms of financial recompense, not of making a fitting apology for its shortcomings."

No date is given for this invitation but, from the contex,t it must have been after Mr Fitzgerald made his report on 2 July 2003 and possibly after the Review Panel, which met on 13 November 2003, had largely upheld the findings of Mr Fitzgerald's independent investigation.

On 28 November, Officer M, The Director of Support and Cultural Services wrote to Mrs Lawrence in respect of the outcome of the various investigations.
"He explained that this response was sent by him and not the Director of Social Care and Housing, Jon Skone, because the latter had "declared a personal interest in that he is related to the Chairperson [Maria Hemingway] of the child protection conference" (para 160).

At paragraph 162 the Ombudsman records that "Mrs Lawrence spoke to Officer M on 24 November 2003 [14 months after Mrs Lawrence's initial complaint against the chairman]. His note of the conversation indicates that it was at this point that it became clear to Mrs Lawrence that the chairman of the conference[s], Officer H, was the wife of the Director of Social Care and Housing, Officer J."

In his letter of 28 November, Officer M also apologised that "professional standards had slipped on this occasion." an apology described by the Ombudsman as "grudging and ineffectual."

So ineffectual, in fact, that Mrs Lawrence felt she had no option but to seek justice through the Ombudsman.

Sorry is the hardest word!

For the complete Ombudsman's report click OMBUD


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